A new report in the Washington Post says the SFPD is still using the facial recognition tools that it was banned from using five years ago, by just sending requests to other cities' police departments that are still allowed to use those tools.

The San Francisco Police Department was banned from using facial recognition tools in 2019, a ban which really applied to all city departments, but most affected the SFPD. (Though yes, city voters' approval of Prop E in March allows police to use drones equipped with facial recognition tools.)

Now, five years after the facial recognition ban went into effect, we learn the whole thing may have been a sham ban anyway. The Washington Post is reporting that SFPD has still been using facial recognition, by simply sending requests for searches to other police departments who don’t have such a ban.

That Washington Post story is about both the San Francisco and Austin police departments using face recognition technology, despite bans by both cities' governments. And the Austin PD has been doing it substantially more, though in both cases, officers are apparently just reaching out to other nearby police departments.

If this is infuriating to you, at least take comfort in the fact that the SFPD’s illegal searches ended up being fruitless. “Since the city’s ban took effect in 2019, the San Francisco Police Department has asked outside agencies to conduct at least five facial recognition searches,” according to the Post. “But no matches were returned, according to a summary of those incidents submitted by the department to the county’s board of supervisors last year.”

SFPD spokesperson Evan Sernoffsky admitted to the Post that the searches violated the ban, but he claims the officers were not authorized to make the requests, and they simply went rogue. The department did not face any consequences for the behavior, though Sernoffsky declined to say whether the officers were disciplined for the unauthorized searches.

The Washington Post had to look no further than ousted SF DA Chesa Boudin for criticism, and Boudin told them that “Police are using it but not saying they are using it.” Boudin alleges that SFPD sends “Be on the lookout” messages with images of suspects’ faces, as a sort of wink-nod request that those departments perform a facial recognition search.  

Sernoffsky scoffed at that allegation, calling it an “outlandish conspiracy theory.” He added that any claim that SFPD “routinely engaged in this practice beyond the cases we made public is absolutely false.”

Regardless, there is likely to be more information coming on these five (or more?) unauthorized facial recognition searches.

Here in the Bay Area, police department use of facial recognition tools is also banned in Oakland, Alameda, Santa Cruz, and (of course) Berkeley.

Related: Giants Set to Use Facial Recognition on Fans, Privacy Advocates Say It’s a Slap in the Face [SFist]

Image: CARDIFF, WALES - JUNE 20: A close-up of Police facial recognition cameras in operation on Westgate Street ahead of a Harry Styles concert at the Principality Stadium on June 20, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. Members of the European Parliament recently backed an effective ban on live face recognition cameras in public. A live face recognition camera works by comparing faces with a "watch list" using Artificial Intelligence. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)